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Systems thinking: tools and mapping

This article demonstrates some of the practical tools used for system mapping.
© University of Reading


There are many tools available to help with systems thinking. If you would like to explore the different methods in detail, links are provided here and in the further reading section below.

Three Horizons methodology

This is an approach for gathering different perspectives on how a system might change in the future, including the barriers and opportunities. ‘Horizon 1’ is defined as the near-term, the here and now, while ‘Horizon 3’ describes the long-term vision for the future of the system. ‘Horizon 2’ is the interim period in which the system transitions between horizons 1 and 3. The approach helps prevent people talking at cross purposes about system change by making the time scale explicit. Some people may be focussing more on enabling the system to function well in the short-term (H1), while others take a longer term view. Rather than setting them at odds, the Three Horizon methodology can help find complementarity in their perspectives.

Identifying enablers and inhibitors of desired outcomes

This takes a brainstorming approach to identify the different factors in the system that help to promote (enable) or hinder (inhibit) the achievement of desired outcome(s). The ‘PESTLE’ acronym helps to broaden thinking by identifying possible factors across all the following domains: Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal and Environmental. So, for example, improving the nature on a local wildlife reserve might be inhibited by littering and other anti-social behaviour (social), a lack of funding (economic), constraining regulations on land management (political), and the presence of invasive species (environmental). This kind of exercise works best when a wide range of different people is included in the brainstorming exercise to ensure a high level of cognitive diversity.

The Pig model

The name comes from the original example of the approach, which explores how any issue can be seen from multiple different perspectives. A pig might be seen by a a variety of different actors (such as a wolf, farmer, poet and veterinarian) as food, income, inspiration or a patient respectively. The trick with this method is to identify a wide range of different stakeholders and attempt to anticipate their diverse perspectives. This should then help to engage with those stakeholders more fruitfully when proposing a solution.


System maps are powerful tools for communicating and exploring interactions or interdependencies between the different elements of a system. They can be drawn by hand or with open source software packages. The maps show basic interrelationships (where one component influences another) and may, additionally, draw out the direction of influence, including feedback loops. Such maps are sometimes called ‘causal loop diagrams’. Here’s a simple example, reflecting the virtuous feedback cycle you looked at in Step 2.6.

Simple causal loop diagram showing a hypothesis for a positive feedback cycle between attitudes of nature connectedness and nature restoration

Systems maps can be developed individually or as part of a participatory process. Mapping with others helps to combine partial knowledge from many people into a wider picture and enables everyone to learn together. The Participatory System Mapper software (PRSM) is useful for working together online. It provides an open access online platform where you can easily draw maps of systems while simultaneously interacting with other individuals. Using PRSM, groups of people can collaborate in the drawing of a map. They may be sitting around a table and discussing the map as it is created face-to-face, or working remotely using online video conferencing or the chat feature built into the application. Everyone can participate live because every edit (creating nodes and links, arranging them, annotating them, and so on) is broadcast to all the other participants as the changes are made.

We used this tool in a project called EMPOWER, working with citizens in the UK, Ghana and India to understand the ways in which climate change might affect people so they can identify actions to protect themselves, their households and communities.

Here is an example of a participatory systems map from the EMPOWER project.

The map can also be viewed within the PRSM software or downloaded as a PDF.

This particular map focuses on ways in which climate change might impact citizen access to sufficient and nutritious food and water, along with possible interventions to reduce risk.

In the next step, you will have the opportunity to use the PRSM software to explore how biodiversity loss could affect you, your household and local community, and the steps you can take to reduce negative impacts.

© University of Reading
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Using Systems Thinking to Tackle the Climate and Biodiversity Crisis

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